Willis Augustus Lee

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Willis Augustus Lee, Jr.
Willis A. Lee;h95009.jpg
Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr., circa 1942.
Nickname(s) Ching
Born (1888-05-11)May 11, 1888
Natlee, Kentucky
Died August 25, 1945(1945-08-25) (aged 57)
USS Wyoming (AG-17), off the coast of Maine
Place of burial Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch  United States Navy
Years of service 1908–1945
Rank US-O9 insignia.svg Vice Admiral
Commands held USS Fairfax
USS William B. Preston
USS Lardner
USS Pennsylvania
USS Concord
Battleship Division 6
Battleships Pacific Fleet
Battles/wars

Occupation of Veracruz
World War I
World War II

Awards Navy Cross
Legion of Merit
Distinguished Service Medal (2)

Willis Augustus "Ching" Lee, Jr. (May 11, 1888 – August 25, 1945) was a Vice Admiral of the United States Navy during World War II. Lee commanded the American ships during the second night of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (November 14–15, 1942) and turned back a Japanese invasion force headed for the island. The victory ended Japanese attempts to reinforce their troops on Guadalcanal, and thus marked a turning point in both the Guadalcanal Campaign and the Pacific War itself.

Lee was also a skilled sport shooter, and won 7 medals in the 1920 Olympics shooting events (including five gold medals), tied with teammate Lloyd Spooner for the most anyone had ever received in a single games. Their record stood for 60 years. He was the most successful athlete at the 1920 Olympics.

Early life through World War II[edit]

Willis Lee, a distant relative of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was born in the rural town of Natlee in Owen County, Kentucky, on May 11, 1888. The son of Judge Willis Augustus Lee and Susan Arnold, he was known as "Mose" Lee to family and friends.[1][2]

He entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1904. While at the Naval academy, his Chinese-sounding last name, compounded by his fondness for the Far East earned him the nickname "Ching" Lee.[3]

Following graduation, Lee joined the academy's rifle team twice. He was assigned to the battleship Idaho (BB-24) from October 1908 to May 1909, before returning to the naval academy and re-joining the rifle team. From November 1909 until May 1910, Lee served aboard the protected cruiser New Orleans (CL-22), and then transferred to the gunboat Helena (PG-9). Upon being detached back to the United States, Lee re-joined the Academy shooting team a third time. In July 1913, Lee re-joined the Idaho, and later transferred to the battleship New Hampshire (BB-25) to participate in the occupation of Veracruz.[4]

During World War I, Lee served on the destroyers O'Brien (DD-51) and Lea (DD-118).

1920 Olympics[edit]

Willis Augustus Lee
Medal record
Men's shooting
Competitor for the  United States
Olympic Games
Gold 1920 Antwerp Team 50 m
small bore rifle
Gold 1920 Antwerp Team 300 m
army rifle, prone
Gold 1920 Antwerp Team 600 m free rifle
Gold 1920 Antwerp Team free rifle,
300 m + 600 m
Gold 1920 Antwerp Team free rifle
Silver 1920 Antwerp Team 300 m army
rifle, standing
Bronze 1920 Antwerp Team 100 m running
deer, single shots

Lee participated in 14 events at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp. He won 7 medals (5 gold, 1 silver, and one bronze), all in team events.[5] His teammates for the various events were Dennis Fenton, Lawrence Nuesslein, Arthur Rothrock, Oliver Schriver, Morris Fisher, Carl Osburn, Lloyd Spooner, and Joseph Jackson.

Lee and Spooner ended the 1920 Olympics with 7 medals each, the most anyone had ever received in a single games. It would not be until Alexander Dityatin in the 1980 games that anyone would beat that record. (Boris Shakhlin was the next person to reach 7, in 1960)

Interwar Years[edit]

Lee attended the Naval War College in the late 1920s,[5] and was promoted to the rank of Captain in 1936.[6]

During the 1930s and early 1940s, Lee was several times assigned to the Fleet Training Division, commanded the light cruiser Concord (CL-10), and served on the staff of Commander, Cruisers, Battle Force. In early 1942, following his promotion to the rank of Rear Admiral, Lee became Assistant Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet.

World War II[edit]

Lee's specialty in life was gunnery. At the age of 19 in 1907 "he became the only American to win both the US National High Power Rifle and Pistol championships in the same year." In 1914 during the Vera Cruz campaign in Mexico he drew the fire of three enemy snipers, thereby exposing their positions and then shot them at long range.[3] He understood the powerful guns of a battleship as an extension of the law of ballistics and adapted his expertise to the new age of technology.[7] When Admiral Lee engaged IJN Admiral Kondo's battleship Kirishima on the evening of 14 November 1942 in the waters off Guadalcanal, he became naval history's first battleship commander to conduct a "gunfight" primarily by radar remote control.[8]

Naval Battle of Guadalcanal[edit]

Bull Halsey presents Lee with the Navy Cross for his actions during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, circa January 1943

In August 1942, Rear Admiral Lee was sent to the Pacific to command Battleship Division Six, consisting of the battleships USS Washington (BB-56) and USS South Dakota (BB-57). Flying his flag in the Washington, Lee engaged an IJN surface fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondō during the second night of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of 14–15 November 1942. While riding in the battleship Washington, which served as his flagship during this sea-fight, Lee's battleship decisively gunned the IJN battleship Kirishima into a wreck, resulting in her scuttling shortly afterwards. With 300 Imperial sailors still entombed within her hull, she slid into Ironbottom Sound,[9] leaving Admiral Lee's flagship Washington America's only battleship during World War II to sink an enemy battleship in a "one on one" gunfight.[10]

Lee, who "knew more about radar than the radar operators",[11] used the SG radar installed aboard the Washington to skillfully maneuver his ships during the night.

To Willis Lee went many accolades. "Audacious planning and execution" marked his operations, commented Halsey... Unlike Callaghan, Lee never allowed the action to degenerate into a nautical brawl, because he formulated a workable plan and adhered to it, even after every ship in his task force except Washington was sunk or forced to retire. Lee was never more incisive than in his own evaluation of his success: "We realized then and it should not be forgotten now, that our entire superiority was due almost entirely to our possession of radar. Certainly we have no edge on the Japs in experience, skill, training, or performance of personnel.[12]

Lee was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions at the battle.

After Guadalcanal[edit]

Lee was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1944 and placed in charge of the Pacific Fleet's fast battleships, as Commander, Battleships, Pacific Fleet (ComBatPac).

In May 1945, he was sent to the Atlantic to command a special unit researching defenses against the threat of Japanese kamikaze planes. While serving in that position on 25 August 1945, Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee died suddenly after suffering a heart attack, just eight days prior to the Surrender of Japan.

Family[edit]

Willis Lee Jr. was a distant relative of Gen. Robert E. Lee and possibly descended from the third Attorney General of the United States, Charles Lee.[13] He married Mabelle Allen Elspeth (1894–1949) on July 14, 1919. They had no children.[6] Willis' father, Judge Willis Augustus Lee Sr., was one of fourteen children of Nathaniel Wiley Lee (aka Nat Lee, founder of Natlee) and Frances Abbott, of Owen County, Kentucky.

His great-grandparents were early Kentucky settlers, Joseph R. Lee and Mary Wiley.[14] His grandfather Nathaniel W. Lee operated a distillery at his namesake village of Natlee. In 1893, Nat Lee's sour mash whiskey was taken to the Chicago World's Fair where it won the Gold Medal over 5000 other entries.[15]

Namesakes[edit]

The Mitscher-class destroyer USS Willis A. Lee (DD-929) was named for him.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Miriam Sidebottom Houchens. History of Owen County, Kentucky. Owen County Historical Society, 1976. page 305
  2. ^ James C. Bryant. Mountain Island In Owen County, Kentucky: The Settlers And Their Churches. Owen County Historical Society, 1986, page 45
  3. ^ a b Hornfischer p. 347
  4. ^ "Willis A. Lee". hazegray.org. Retrieved 1 September 2010. 
  5. ^ a b "Willis A. Lee". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History & Heritage Command. Retrieved 1 September 2010. 
  6. ^ a b "Willis Augustus Lee, Vice Admiral, United States Navy". arlingtoncemetery.net. Retrieved 2 September 2010. 
  7. ^ Hornfischer p. 348
  8. ^ Hornfischer p. 355
  9. ^ Hornfischer p. 361-366
  10. ^ Hornfischer p. 366
  11. ^ Spector, Ronald H. (1985). Eagle Against The Sun. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-394-74101-7.  (Quoted from Samuel Eliot Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p.270)
  12. ^ Frank, Richard B. (1990). Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-58875-4.  Page 486
  13. ^ "Willis Lee Biography". sports-reference.com. Retrieved 2 September 2010. 
  14. ^ Bryant, p. 454
  15. ^ Bryant, p. 50.
  • Hornfischer, James D. Neptune's Inferno; The US Navy at Guadalcanal. Bantam Books; NY, (2011). ISBN 978-0-553-80670-0.

External links[edit]